Ukrainian farmers reap a bleak harvest after feeding the world

One fifth of farmland vital to global food production is trapped in war zone, Ukraine's former economy minister tells ‘The National’

A Tor-M1 SAM system, designed to shoot down cruise missiles and drones, was abandoned in a field on Aivaras Abromavicius's farm in Chernihiv. Photo: Aivaras Abromavicius
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The future for Ukraine’s farmers may be bleak but losses this year will be a dramatic change from the “golden harvest” of 2021 when Aivaras Abromavicius produced 250,000 tonnes of prime cereal across 41,000 hectares of his farms.

The sheer size of his holdings – and there are some Ukraine farms 10 times larger – is an indication of the extraordinary importance of Ukraine to the global food supply and wider economy. Britain’s average farm size is 86 hectares and even sprawling US ranches average 444 hectares.

“Our grain before Russia blockaded the ports was feeding at least 400 million people around the world, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia,” Mr Abromavicius told The National.

“On a regular basis, Middle Eastern investors are looking for opportunities and Ukraine has had some notable investments from Salic [Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company] that has gone into one of the largest farms of 160,000 hectares," he said.

“The UAE, Saudi and Qatar are constantly looking at this region for stability to secure their food interests.”

Mariam Al Mheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, visited to view Mr Abromavicius's agricultural innovations that include using drones for precision farming. The minister’s visit was among several from the Middle East, where Ukraine exports huge quantities of grain.

Mr Abromavicius is well-versed in government dealings since he was invited to become Ukraine’s minister of economy and trade in 2014, serving until 2016. Despite being Lithuanian he was given Ukrainian citizenship.

Then in 2019, at the invitation of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he was asked to lead Ukroboronprom, the country’s biggest defence company.

He left politics hoping for less stressful agricultural pursuits, joining his wife Kateryna Rybachenko, who is chief executive of their three farms.

Russian tanks churning through his lands and missiles hitting his fields were not part of his vision. What workers for the farm owner and former Ukraine economy minister are harvesting now are ordnance and weapons systems.

Economists on Wednesday predicted a 46.5 per cent slump in Ukraine's GBP this year, as Russia makes 2022 the most challenging for agriculture since 1945.

The enemy this week abandoned a surface-to-air missile system worth $10 million – the top-of-the range Tor-M1 SAM system, designed to shoot down cruise missiles and drones, was found in a field on an Abromavicius farm in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine. “On Monday a ballistic missile landed in our field close to Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv and two weeks ago our farmers in the north near Chernihiv recovered an enormous amount of abandoned Russian ammunition, including the Tor system,” he said.

“We also have other smaller missiles landing here and there but I cannot complain as we are not the ones suffering. None of my 550 employees have been hurt although a couple of farmhouses have been destroyed.”

However, the situation is growing more dangerous with Russia changing tactics to shelling fuel dumps and hitting lorries. Movement for farmers in the front line is extremely dangerous as tractors have to pass Russian armoured columns

“The Russians have killed a lot of civilians who just happened to be in the wrong place,” Mr Abromavicius said. “Once your agricultural machines are in the fields you need a truck for refuelling but this is now very dangerous.”

By blockading the key Black Sea ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv, the Russians were not only throttling Ukraine’s exports but “crippling the world economy”, he said.

The critical challenge for farmers is to shift their grain out through ports as alternative routes by rail and road via Romania and Poland can only carry a tenth of what can be exported by sea.

“A ceasefire is vital not just for Ukraine but because countries such as Egypt, India and Pakistan are suffering from very high food inflation,” the 46-year-old former minister said.

It could take up to five years to export the growing mountain of grain from the country, he said, “not to mention the new crops”.

Seeding fields will be another real challenge although Mr Zelenskyy has made it a leading priority.

About 20 per cent of Ukraine's farmland is currently in the war zone, so spring crops cannot be planted. After last year’s boon yield, its agriculture will almost certainly suffer as there is less fertiliser available and scarcity has led to a poorer quality of seeds being used.

Farmers have until May 10 at the latest to return to their land for spring planting, hoping for a ceasefire meantime.

While their fellow countrymen are fighting the war, the farmers know they are on the economic front line providing the revenue that makes up 13 per cent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product.

Another problem facing farmers is availability of working capital. While banks, including foreign ones based in Ukraine, particularly the French firms BNP Paribas and Credit Agricole as well as Austrian Raiffeisenbank, have been hugely supportive during the early weeks of the war, even they are cautious and “don't want you to do risky stuff in occupied territories”, said Mr Abromavicius. “For many farmers, without any working capital they cannot get any revenue and they will become financially very weak.”

Despite being unable to seed 29 per cent of his farmland, the family is still paying the salaries of the 550 employees, as well as obtaining supplies of sleeping bags, body armour, food and medicine for Ukraine.

Mr Abromavicius has no truck with President Vladimir Putin’s contention that the invasion was to liberate Russian speakers in the east.

“My wife is a Russian speaker, her parents have already fled from Donetsk and now they’ve fled from Kyiv. They are 80 years old, fleeing twice from the so-called liberators who speaking the same language as they do.”

Like most Ukrainians, he is furious at the long-term damage being inflicted. In that spirit, the $10m Tor system and ammunition were given to Ukraine’s armed forces to help repel the invaders.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 12:46 PM